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Gary Danko's: Where is the Emperor's new clothes? [SF]

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I know I am in the vast minority and that's okay with me -- I guess I just didn't "get the vibe."
After reading all of the superb reviews, and being somewhat of a foodie myself, I couldn't wait to experience Gary Danko's, my highlight choice of our trip.
But truth to tell, after the initial seating with very competent and able service persons (actually I found them not to be completely sincere) our opinions of the actual food itself were disappointing.
The bass and branzino both looked like rectangular squares with hard top coatings and were grilled making them less than tender. My mate's plate was so sparse it kind of took us both aback. The flavors were okay but for a restaurant with a top reputation, I could name plenty of others that serve these choices with more delicacy.
Wine choices were excellent and attention was always forthcoming -- maybe too much so for our "simple" tastes. In a way, we kind of felt like we were in a wee bit of a pretentious room -- and noisy to boot -- rather than a comfortable upscale place, and that is entirely our fault.
Coming fom NY, we should surely know the difference between the Per Se and Daniel-type places from the less "remarkable" EMP, Marea, Lincoln and La Silhouette, whose atmospheres please our tastes more.
Perhaps "fancy upscale" is a good description for Gary Danko's, so I take full blame for not knowing ahead of time that this type of restaurant just wasn't our cup of tea.
We recognize it is an obvious cut above and the choice of many and the experience was an interesting one with well prepared food in the main -- just not outstanding for the constant kudos it seems to get.
All in all, it was an interesting experience but one that left us a wee bit disappointed.

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  1. See, this is why people keep shooting down Gary Danko when it gets recommended in Chowhound threads. I'm not discounting the positive reviews -- I have enjoyed meals there myself -- but there's nothing remarkable about the experience, even compared to other SF restaurants.

    I am sorry you had an unimpressive meal. I hope we are not responsible for persuading you towards your selection.

    6 Replies
    1. re: dunstable

      Yeah, the menu's not very specific to SF. It always seems weird how many tourists have it high on their lists. As a local I might go there to satisfy a craving for 80s-style international French food.

      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        given how much tourists often rely on yelp; it's not really surprising at all how many have it on their list. it's nearly unheard of for sit-down restaurants in any city to have a 4.5-star average and over 3,000 reviews like GD does.

        i haven't been so i can't comment on the food, but to me, that rating implies that the food is consistently well-executed night after night. as for keeping the same dishes on the menu, if that's what keeps the crowds coming in night after night...

        not to mention it's also in a touristy area.

        1. re: vulber

          then again, like so many other places, the high yelp reviews are undoubtedly skewed by the superlative service, something everyone seems to agree on.

        2. re: Robert Lauriston

          I'd imagine being a part of Relais & Chateau has something to do with the tourist demographic as well. To my knowledge, the restaurants who are a part of it don't exactly push the envelope.

          *edited for horrible grammar.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            Ironically, this thread is making me want to go to Gary Danko. I haven't had that kind of food in years. Though I should have gone before the foie gras ban.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              agreed; as much as i love the focus in san francisco on local, organic, and seasonal ingredients (and constantly changing menus), it's nice to have a break from that every once in a while. while i'ts not nearly in the same price range or league as gary danko, it's why i often end up at luna park in the mission.

        3. I've been disappointed with Danko for years... A decade ago, what they were doing was innovative and interesting but I think they have been riding old coattails for far too long. If memory serves from my last visit (a year or so ago?), the SAME quail dish that I had a decade ago was still there...

          6 Replies
          1. re: CarrieWas218

            Thanks for all the responses. So then please recommend what you think are the top restaurants in SF. Masa?

              1. re: arepo

                Yes, you should have known. No one would ever say GD and Per Se in the same breath.

                Masa, GD are of the "great in the mid 90's" list, except GD wasn't really that great then. The world has moved on - really far on. For the type of food you seem to be talking about "the best" meaning international cuisine - you could do worse than the 2-star michelin list - Crenn, Benu, Coi, Saison - as a starting point. For some reason, everyone from New York likes Slanted Door - but I just looked at the prices - ERK - I can get better shaking beef at Sunflower for $10 (without the view).

                SF's rep is great at inventive mid-range places, not so good at the highest end of the range, which is why all the 3 stars are in napa - and they're welcome to them, although it would be nice to have a few places like that in SF proper --- flights to new york are cheap and plentiful.

                No one here recommends RN74 much, or GD, or Prospect, or Boulevard - that are sometimes written off as a bit too NYC (which is a shorthand for that kind of midtown glitz with some substance kind of place). Discussion focuses more on Dong Bei Mama and whether the Ton Kiang chicken wings are still up to snuff and who is still making their noodles by hand vs making the dough and running it through a machine - which is how I'm starting to understand NYC, now that I'm there often enough to just drop by K-Town instead of having to make a night of going to "the best place".

                  1. re: bbulkow

                    Sunflower fan here, but I did find their shaking beef on the tough side. I don't think they used filet mignon. Not in the same league as Slanted Door, IMO.

                1. Funny that you use the phrase "Emperor's New Clothes" - that was precisely my thought way back when regarding GD...

                  1. Too bad you didn't check on chowhound (instead of yelp or zagat) -- as you can see from the responses you've gotten your opinion would not have been in the vast minority.

                    15 Replies
                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      How true, Ruth. Most of those responses came from the lame Trip Advisor. I should have known better.
                      But that doesn't explain the up responses to a truly "miss the mark" place in the Elite Cafe. Unless one happens to like their plate of mediocre vittles piled high with huge portions.

                      1. re: arepo

                        I started dating a guy last year who surprised me with a trip to Paris and planned the entire trip, using Trip Advisor to decide on the dining establishments. Within a few days, he realized that he probably should have asked me for recommendations as we had some decidedly forgettable meals.

                        Lesson learned!

                        1. re: CarrieWas218

                          The problem (obviously) is that when you're using Trip Adviser you're for the most part not getting the views of the in-the-know locals.

                        2. re: arepo

                          TripAdvisor is a horrible fail for food, but it's OK for hotels, which makes sense.Yelp at least gets a lot of locals - but doesn't have much coverage overseas (yet). I've started trying to troll blogs in the local language when I'm travellng outside the US, and I've also started writing on TripAdvisor, just to help out.

                          1. re: bbulkow

                            Yes - I will give the BF credit on the hotel; on the Rue du Bac at an *amazing* price. Good idea, BBulkow - maybe I should start contributing to TripAdvisor as well...

                            1. re: CarrieWas218

                              Yeah, I use TripAdvisor a lot for hotels. Not for restaurants!

                                1. re: arepo

                                  I think TripAdvisor can be useful for small towns and remote destinations that don't have a presence on other , more locals-oriented sites.

                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    The problem with TA is that you are beholden to the thoughts of strangers whose tastes might just not be yours so you need to pick and choose carefully and read between the lines. But on a website like Chowhound, you get to know those names that you've come to trust from their different posts (like your own, Ruth -- who I would trust as one who seems to have my "kind" of taste) much more readily than a bunch of strangers with mostly one-time shots on TA.

                                    1. re: arepo

                                      Honestly it's probably because Chowhound is a food-specific site. Its users tend to care more about food, and hence know what they're talking about compared to other sites. Someone on Yelp! or Trip Advisor might go out to dinner perhaps five times a year. The average Chowhound user probably goes out five times a month. I'm not saying opinions on other sites are invalid, but it's like the difference between people who watch every game, and people who only tune in during the playoffs. We know more because we care more.

                                      1. re: dunstable

                                        That's one factor, but I do think there's a real problem with lack of context. You come to San Francisco, have dinner in a couple of restaurants, think they're pretty good and give them a good rating. But you have no idea how good they are compared to other restaurants in San Francisco. The number one ranked San Francisco restaurant on Trip Advisor is a place I'd never heard of, which turns out to be a breakfast place across the street from a hotel in Fisherman's Wharf. Myabe it's really that good, but chances are the people who rated it have not tried any other breakfast places in the city. A huge proportion of the highest rated places on Trip Advisor are less than a mile from Fisherman's Wharf.

                                        As arepo pointed out, as with any other type of reviewing it helps to get a feel for the tastes and background of the reviewer -- I don't like the same movies as some movie reviewers, but if I know their tastes I can still use them to help decide whether I might like the movie.

                                        ETA: Here's what a visitor who reviewed two other breakfast places in SF said about it:

                                        "This place is rated the number one restaurant in San Francisco by tripadvisor reviewers as of my writing of this review. Let's get this out of the way -- there's no way in heck this place is the best restaurant in San Francisco. It's not in the top 100. I imagine it's tourist central location, reasonable pricing and broad appeal breakfast menu make it the top rated.

                                        That said, it's a solid breakfast, cooked very well and has huge portions. You'll be full until dinner. They do a great job with standard, if unimaginative fare and deserve your dollars."

                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                          No, I agree, but I'm broadening that to include actual residents of San Francisco. For instance, on Yelp, nearly every local sushi shop has been called "best sushi in San Francisco" by at least one neighborhood regular. It's great that s/he is supporting a local business, but probably that person has not tried more than a half dozen sushi restaurants in the city. A person who makes that claim on Chowhound has probably tried ten times as many.

                                          Inversely, I think a review from an infrequent visitor to the city can be useful, so long as that person is a frequent diner and has a strong pool of experience to draw against. For instance, there was once a thread on the Portland board asking about great breakfast spots or something, and one place kept coming up as the best bagel in the city. By that point, I had tried exactly one bagel in Portland, and while it may well be the best over there, I at least knew that it was not "worth a detour" for a tourist, and said so. Similarly, I think future visitors will find arepo's comments about Danko useful, and many will probably be dissuaded from dining there.

                                          1. re: dunstable

                                            I see what you mean. It's most useful, as you note, if you have context both within a city (best bagel in Portland) and a larger context (it may be the best bagel in Portland, but it's not that great in the universe of bagels). What concerns me on Trip Advisor is the person from Iowa for whom Gary Danko is a universe above anything back home (no offense intended to Iowans!).

                                          2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                            Agree on the context part.

                                            It's especially rough for travelers. I have been traveling a lot internationally, and if you don't have a local guide with context, and with strong local knowledge, you're doomed to a mediocre meal near the hotel - or the chance of getting lucky.

                                            I get lucky now and again, and I have some poor meals, all in the game.

                                            I'm posting to trip adviser simply because they deserve some "local recommendeds" not just business travelers. You can tell when locals write, just like Ruth says.

                              1. re: bbulkow

                                TA has the same problems as yelp also does to extent. You have no idea what the review considers "best" for them and there fore no idea if it will meet with your idea of "best". At least with the hotel you can see if they are travelling for business or with spawn. And it's all travellers who don't have the time to actually get to know a food scene. If I can't find local recs then I try to go with expat's food blogs when I travel.

                          2. Gary Danko's where you take execs. that expect to wear jackets and expense the meal and want a constant good meal. I don't find it that creative but it's always solid. On the other hand I do like EMP and Marea but prefer Le Bernardin to Per Se.